By Sugeeswara Senadhira/Ceylon Today
Colombo, February 14: India is well aware that Tamil Nadu fishermen are guilty of using proscribed bottom-trawling nets to catch fish in the Palk Strait, destroying rich fish breeding areas. They cross the maritime boundary to illegally fish in Sri Lankan waters.
Reluctantly the Indians officially admitted it during the bilateral talks to solve the issue. Indian officials asked Sri Lanka to take a humanitarian approach towards the Tamil Nadu fishermen fishing illegally in Sri Lankan waters.
As there was no final settlement on the issue of confiscated Indian fishing vessels, Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda ordered immediate auction of the vessels, captured for illegal fishing in Sri Lankan waters and using the banned bottom-trawling nets. Last week, 140 Indian vessels were auctioned for several hundred thousand rupees. However, further auctioning has been temporarily stopped as there were letters exchanged between India and Sri Lanka as well as between Chennai and New Delhi.
India wants the Sri Lankan authorities to discuss the issue with a Tamil Nadu State delegation regarding modalities to finalize the disposal of unsalvageable Indian fishing boats in Sri Lanka. New Delhi made a request to Colombo to facilitate the talks after Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin wrote to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi urging his intervention to stop the auction of over 100 seized boats belonging to the Indian fishermen.
Fisheries Minister Devananda defended the decision to auction the boats saying it was to raise funds for the suffering northern fishermen. Furthermore, the boats are unsalvageable and have become an environment problem. They are breeding grounds for dengue mosquitoes.
Devananda said India had failed to provide the assistance it promised to the northern fishermen. He said he had earlier sought Indian assistance to the tune of LKR 500 million to support northern fishermen, whose nets and livelihoods were destroyed by bottom trawlers operated by Indian fishermen.
Not fit for use
“India said they cannot award compensation but would support livelihood programmes for the fishermen. We are still awaiting an update on that,” he told the media. Devananda is under pressure from northern fishermen who blame him for their plight. He has been asked to ensure implementation of Sri Lankan laws on bottom trawling and illegal fishing.
According to the Minister, the vessels being auctioned in Jaffna were mostly seized before 2018. “Even Indian officials inspected them and agreed they were not fit for use. They insisted that should there be an auction, the money must go to the Indian side. Since we are yet to receive any Indian assistance for northern fishermen, affected by Indian trawlers, the Fisheries Department decided to go ahead with the auction, so that the money can be used to support our fishermen,” he said.
Indian Arrest Warrant
India is holding talks with Minister Devananda, despite an open arrest warrant pending against him in India. The police have named Devananda as the third accused in the charge sheet in a case relating to a shootout at Choolaimedu in Tamil Nadu on 1 November 1986, in which a person was killed.
Last week, when the case was taken up, the Magistrate took a serious view of the prosecution’s submissions that the police were not cooperating in the trial in the over-three-decade-old murder case. The Magistrate issued a bailable warrant against the investigating police officer.
Devananda, the ‘Military Commander’ of Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) was living in a safe house in Tamil Nadu when the shooting took place between his group and some outsiders. Devananda and nine other Sri Lankans were arrested in this connection, but they absconded after being released on bail.
Later, Devanada left EPRLF and formed his own group, Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP). He later joined mainstream Sri Lankan politics and entered Parliament representing Jaffna District. However, the case is still pending in Chennai court and a non-bailable warrant was subsequently issued against all the accused including Devananda.
After he became a minister, Devananda moved the court for cancellation of the warrant. The Indian prosecution later obtained the court’s permission to split the case and proceed against Devananda as the other accused were still absconding. As per the orders of the Madras High Court, Devananda, who was declared a proclaimed offender by the trial court, appeared before it via video-conferencing through the Indian High Commission’s office in Sri Lanka for the trial, which commenced in 2016.
Contending that he was not connected with the killing, Douglas has sought to be acquitted of the murder charge. Last year, the Additional Public Prosecutor Prabhavathy told the court that the police were not cooperating in the case as far as the production of prosecution witnesses for the purpose of cross-examination was concerned. Sessions Judge M Shanthi then issued a bailable warrant against the investigation officer of the Choolaimedu police station and posted the matter for further hearing.
Now India wants to cooperate with Fisheries Minister Devanada to solve the fishermen issue and he expressed willingness to hold talks. He held online talks with fishermen representatives from Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, who attended a meeting organised by Sri Lanka Deputy High Commissioner D Venkateshwaran at his office in Chennai last week. The representatives urged Minister Devananda to work out a peaceful resolution to the conflict. They also requested Sri Lanka not to arrest those fishing in Palk Strait. They urged the minister to stop the auctioning of boats that Sri Lanka had impounded over the years.
G Manohar, a fisherman representative from Akkarapettai in Nagapattinam told Media that they had stressed to the Fisheries Minister the imperative need to find a permanent resolution in the conflict between the two countries.
“A joint committee should be set up with representatives from both the countries for a resolution,” Manohar said.
Both Colombo and New Delhi are aware of the sensitivity of the issue and the requirement of a lasting solution as it has become an explosive with multiple protests by northern Tamil fishermen, blaming Tamil Nadu fishermen for illegal fishing and destruction of fish-rich area by using bottom-trawling methods for quick gain.